All fights fought, all comers seen off, now it’s time for Pat Hickey to bask in winter sun
Next year he will preside over the first ever European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan – his legacy on the world stage
Outside the Shayba Arena, a volunteer at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, comes up with a novel way of enjoying the sun, which can push midday temperatures up to 19 degrees.
Richard Burrows and Pat Hickey pictured in 2001.
Outside the Shayba Arena, a couple of volunteers have hit on an idea. The midday sun has pushed temperatures up to 19 degrees, making their garish winter jackets as redundant as they are unsightly. So they’ve removed them, rolled them and dotted them on the grassy bank to use as pillows as they catch a few rays on their lunchbreak. Sun-bathing workers at the Winter Olympics.
Pat Hickey chuckles at the mention of it and summons up a yarn. This is his seventh Winter Games and it’s warmer today than some of the summer ones he’s been to. A lifetime of Olympic comings and goings has left him with a story for every situation. Typically, he has one for the sunniest Winter Olympics in history.
“I remember when Sochi started to bid for the games, I asked a fella from Belarus what did he think of it. And he roared laughing at the idea of it. In the days of the old Soviet Union, if you were a good comrade you got your leathanta saoire of a week’s holidays down in Sochi to get you away from the cold. It was totally inconceivable to him that you could ever consider it as a winter destination. But they’ve done it.”
We’re sitting in a cafeteria out the back of the arena from where a women’s ice hockey game wafts out when anyone opens a door. Hickey does a quick look over both shoulders before confessing that it isn’t a sport that floats his particular canoe.
“I know you’re supposed to, everyone loves it, but I can’t have it. It or the curling.” The snow sports are more his thing, especially the newer, madder ones like moguls and aerials and slopestyle.
Yet an Olympics for him is taken up with meetings upon meetings upon schmoozes upon schmoozes. President of the European Olympic Committees, his is the say-so other Olympic presidents come looking for. At 68 years of age and with 30 years of games behind him, you’d wonder what the attraction is any more. Keeping on keeping on, it seems.
“Well, I’m there until 2017,” he says. “I’m lucky, I’m an IOC member until age 80. I’ll be 71 when my time as European president is up so if I’m in good health, I might just sit back and enjoy my life as an IOC member. Or I might see if there’s another term in me, I don’t know yet.
“I love being involved with sport, I love being around athletes, I love the politics of sport. Because I’m a volunteer, it means that no one can have a grip on you. No one can tell you what direction you should be going in. Politics is in your blood, you know?
“For an Irish guy to rise to the top of Europe is some achievement.”
Never saw a bushel worth hiding his light under, did Hickey. It’s peacetime now but wartime served him well all the same. On the executive of the IOC, head of the OCI for as long as he wants to be, all fights fought, all comers seen off.
“I’m getting worried,” he says. “I’m coming close to sainthood now. I haven’t had a good row in about five years!”
Maybe his various foes just decided it wasn’t worth the hassle in the end. Hickey is the living embodiment of the old saw about not wrestling with a pig - you end up dirty and the pig enjoys it.
“The guy who tried to wipe me off the planet – that great Minister for Sport James McDaid who set up Richard Burrows to run against me with Tony O’Reilly backing him up – well, he ended up with egg all over his face because I hammered him. Then we went to Sydney in 2000 and he tried to take the accreditation off John Treacy.
“And we said, ‘No – we’ll f**king decide who gets the accreditation. And what have you got against poor John Treacy anyway?’
“It was brilliant! He actually went through political channels then and got onto the Australian department of foreign affairs. And he got a letter back saying, ‘If you want to go to Sydney, you have to go through Pat Hickey’. He was raging! It was great!”
If it’s obvious that he still half-wishes there was an arm wrestle somewhere about the place to get stuck into, his sights are trained further afield these days. Next year he will preside over the first ever European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. Six years in the making, it’s conceived as an Olympic-style event and if it’s a success it will stand as Hickey’s legacy on the world stage. Mind you, the same is true if it doesn’t work out as planned.
“When the Soviet Union broke up, they got a derogation from the Council of Europe that they could keep themselves as Europeans rather than Asians. They’re next door to Iran but they’re very keen at all times to show that they’re European. They ran the Eurovision Song Contest three years ago and they got very excited at the idea of running a big European event. I knew the guy there and I sold him the idea of these games.
“They’re like the Qatar of Europe. They have their own oil in the Caspian Sea. They export oil and gas all over and they’re massively wealthy. You want to see Baku these days. I was there 15 years ago and it was a kip - now it’s like Dubai. It’s unbelievable.”
Initially, they wanted just 12 sports involved. Hickey’s plan was to go with smaller version of bigger sports as well – three-on-three basketball and beach soccer will be in the games, as will aerobics and trampolining. But as time went by, more sports got in touch to see could they be part of it. As it stands, in the region of 6,000 athletes will compete in 19 sports.
‘Lose its place’
“When wrestling looked like it was going to lose its place in the summer Olympics, all the sports started to get worried. Wrestling got their situation sported out in the end but all of a sudden, you had different sports wondering how safe they were. If a sport goes out of the Olympics, it’s a drop in revenue of anywhere in the region of €200m. And you’re standing in your nude in downtown Sochi without that money.
“So we became inundated with sports looking to get in. Athletics will be there, swimming will be there, boxing will be there. For I think half the sports, they will count as qualifiers for Rio.
“What we’re trying to do is leave a games that is going to get bigger and going to get stronger. For me, it’s a chance to, if you like, leave a big achievement as president of Europe. If I can do that, I’ll be a happy camper.”
You suspect he will be one way or the other. His Brer Rabbit ability to always emerge unscathed from the briar patch has seen him this far and it will see him further. As we get up to leave, he starts into a another yarn, apropos of not very much at all.
“Prince Albert has invited my wife and I down to the castle in Monaco for a hooley on Paddy’s Day. He’s half Irish, of course. Sure his mother was Irish – Grace Kelly.
“There’s an Irish pub in the castle, did you know that? Yeah, his mother used to use it as a bolthole, to go away and have some quiet time with a book and a gin and tonic . . .”
Resistance is futile.